I wrote up this list after seeing The Grand Budapest Hotel a couple weeks ago. Because, more than staging every single set/shot/character as a neat little handmade diorama and then getting Hollywood stars to under-act their way through them, it seems to me Wes Anderson’s true obsession is pinpointing transitional stages of life. He’s gone out of order, but at this point he’s covered almost everything:
- Moonrise Kingdom (2012) - the end of childhood and first steps into adolescence
- Rushmore (1998) - adolescence: seeking adult solutions to childhood needs
- Bottle Rocket (1996) - twentysomethings: aimlessness, identity crisis, solidifying real friendships
- The Royal Tenenbaums (2001) - adulthood: dealing with the traumas of childhood and having to heal/make your own new family
- The Darjeeling Limited (2007) - adulthood: coping with parental loss/separation and the urge to return to childhood
- Fantastic Mr. Fox (2009) - parenthood: being a provider, family life, and mid-life crisis
- The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou (2004) - post-middle age: aging past ‘usefulness’ into acceptance of death and your own past mistakes
Playacted visual style aside, this is what these movies are “about,” to me, and in this sense they’re all chunks of the same basic story. So Grand Budapest Hotel looks at first like it could slot somewhere in between Rushmore and Bottle Rocket since one of its protagonists, Zero, is a teenager undergoing a vague coming-of-age experience. There’s a rushed mention of his traumatic third world childhood and some business with his first love Agatha (though she’s really more of a helpful plot device, as well as the “token female who isn’t Tilda Swinton or Anjelica Huston”—a role filled by Cate Blanchett, Gwyneth Paltrow, and Natalie Portman in previous Anderson flicks), but the movie really doesn’t spend much time on Zero’s maturation. That part is an afterthought to the caper.
Grand Budapest is Anderson’s first action movie and the tropes of the genre turn out to suit him rather well. There’s the suave ladies-man antihero, his eager and pure-of-heart sidekick, the goose-stepping military pursuers, a shadowy assassin, and lots of colorful backdrops for all of them to dash through (not to mention a prison-break scheme and a ski-chase climax). None of them needs to be particularly complex or fueled by more than a single, simple motive. By the end, though the noblest person ends up with the money and the girl, no one else has changed much at all. Anderson’s once-hip deadpan style works better in this environment because we don’t expect artsy dramatic performances here, just the thrill of the chase. We don’t have to spend the whole movie irked by the feeling that we’re missing something when the slo-mo walking shots don’t carry the emotional payoff they imply. Instead, we get to munch our popcorn and laugh while Ralph Fiennes, Adrien Brody, Willem Defoe, and Tony Revolori all punch each other in the face.